Little spuds on P.E.I. no small potatoes anymore
'Our challenge is remaining relevant, and creamers help answer some of those'
Little potatoes used to fall through the conveyor belt of conventional potato grader, and along with the rocks were usually unceremoniously dumped, or sometimes fed to cattle.
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But times have changed. Recent years have seen an explosion in consumer demand for small spuds, and huge growth in companies that sell them. Small potatoes — 19 to 41 millimetres, to be exact — now make up about 10 per cent of all the hectares grown on P.E.I. for the fresh or table market.
"In the last five or six years it's really taken off," said Sanford Gleddie, vice-president of operations and business development with the Little Potato Company based in Edmonton, Alta., celebrating its 20th year in business.
"Our business growth has been exponential, as it has been for others who've entered this category."
Potato consumption has declined dramatically over the last decade. Canadians with busy careers and from increasingly diverse backgrounds increasingly opt for pasta or rice instead of potatoes, avoiding the peeling and cooking time. French fry consumption also plummeted with increased health consciousness.
But small potatoes don't require peeling and cook quickly. The Little Potato Company even presents them on microwaveable trays with a variety of seasonings.
"It makes eating a potato convenient for those who love potatoes," said Gleddie.
P.E.I. grows more potatoes than any other province — almost 24 per cent of Canada's total production — despite its small size.
Of the nearly 36,400 hectares of spuds grown annually, 11,000 hectares are fresh or table potatoes (as opposed to potatoes for processing or seed), and a growing percentage of them are small — the number now stands at about 1,100 to 2,700 acres.
Half a dozen Island farmers grow the mini potatoes, called creamers, and more are being recruited to get into the game.
The Little Potato Company has doubled the number of growers and tripled the number of acres it grows in the last five years.
Mount Albion-based Vanco Farms is their main Island grower — Vanco also packs the little potatoes grown by others for the local market, Gleddie said.
The Little Potato Company has developed several breeds that naturally grow smaller than other varieties: Baby Boomer, Perline and Blushing Belle are some of the variety names.
Growing them properly has been a challenge for even the experienced growers on the Island.
It takes a lot of attention to detail to grow these.- Sanford Gleddie
"The trickiest part is on quality, because we're selling these as pre-washed, ready-to-eat, so our tolerance for skin defects is very, very low," said Gleddie.
Blemishes or spots on conventional potatoes are easier to ignore because consumers or processors peel them anyway.
"It takes a lot of attention to detail to grow these," Gleddie said, noting there's a shorter growing season for the company's varieties.
Farmers also need to modify or purchase special equipment to handle the little spuds.
Still a small market
The trend is the same in the U.S., with petite potatoes now making up 12 per cent of the dollar share of the potato category.
They've increased in both dollars and volume versus a year ago, selling 15 per cent more by volume in 2015, reports The Packer, a U.S. produce news magazine.
The Little Potato Co. is currently building a packing plant in Wisconsin and hiring growers there.
While the company believes the market will continue to grow with increasing consumer demand, the PEI Potato Board notes small potatoes are still a relatively small market. That's not to say the industry is not excited about the trend in smaller spuds, though.
"Our challenge is remaining relevant, and creamers help answer some of those [changes in demand]," said the board's Kendra Mills.
Most people buy Little Potato Co. spuds at the grocery store in 1.5 pound bags. Smaller bags of potatoes are also a huge trend, with consumers having little storage space, consuming less and shopping more frequently.
They are much more expensive than a conventional potato — $3.99 for 1.5 pounds, compared to about $4.99 for 10 pounds of regular spuds.
"We would compare that to, what are you paying to put a side of pasta on your plate? What are you paying to put a serving of rice on your plate? Or a serving of another vegetable," said Gleddie.
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